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Agency's Vegas scandal prompts bribery probe

The inspector general for the General Services Administration said Monday that he is investigating possible bribery and kickbacks in the agency, as lawmakers assailed the former GSA administrator for allowing a Las Vegas spending scandal to erode taxpayers' trust in government.

Inspector General Brian Miller told a congressional committee scrutinizing an $823,000 Las Vegas conference that his office has asked the Justice Department to investigate "all sorts of improprieties" surrounding the 2010 event, "including bribes, including possible kickbacks."

Miller's revelations of possible further misconduct by organizers of the four-day event, along with the details he released in a report last week, enraged Democrats and Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The lawmakers put GSA officials on the defensive during a tense four-hour hearing, with some Republicans raising their voices as they scolded former administrator Martha N. Johnson and her colleagues.

GOP lawmakers argued that the excessive spending proves their case for smaller government. Taxpayers picked up the tab for a mind reader, bicycles for a team-building exercise and a slew of private parties at the conference.

"There are those who believe government's reach should be expanded," committee Chairman Darell Issa, R-Calif., said in his opening statement. "What has come to light surrounding GSA's activities should give pause to anyone who has opposed cutting government size and spending."

But Democrats joined him in condemning the outsize tab for the conference, with Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the committee's ranking Democrat, calling it "indefensible" and "intolerable."

Johnson, speaking publicly for the first time since her abrupt resignation last week, called the Western Regions Conference a "raucous, extravagant, arrogant, self-congratulatory event that ultimately belittled federal workers." Closing her testimony, she said, "I will mourn for the rest of my life the loss of my appointment."

Seated next to her was Jeffrey Neely, the senior executive in the GSA's Pacific Rim region who organized the event. Neely, 57, who had received a subpoena from the committee, asserted his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself and left the witness table.

Neely, who earns a salary of $172,000, is one of five senior managers who have been placed on paid administrative leave pending further discipline.

Several lawmakers said it galled them that the managers are still receiving their full salaries. As civil servants, they have more protections than political appointees.

Johnson's replacement, acting Administrator Dan Tangherlini, told lawmakers that he has canceled almost every conference scheduled for GSA employees for the rest of the fiscal year. He also sent letters last Friday to Neely, former Public Buildings Service Commissioner Robert Peck and Robert Shepard, Neely's chief of staff, demanding repayment for private parties they threw.